Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 12, 2012

School officials criticize fast-tracking of bills


TRAVERSE CITY — Seven local school officials criticized Michigan lawmakers for fast-tracking a set of education reform laws and right-to-work legislation.

Superintendents from public schools in Traverse City, Kingsley, Frankfort, Buckley, Glen Lake, Kalkaska and the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District said legislators failed to seek proper input from constituents — or anyone, for that matter — before pushing for two current pieces of legislation and a third bill expected to be introduced after the new year.

"As a former teacher I would have taken this into the classroom as an example of dysfunctional democracy," Mike Hill, TBAISD superintendent, said.

Hill referred to right-to-work legislation rapidly introduced and pushed through the legislative process last week and Tuesday, despite large public protests. House members approved a right-to-work bill for public sector employees in a 58 to 51 vote shortly after the superintendents' press conference.

Local school leaders also discussed a set of bills called that would expand the Education Achievement Authority, and a piece of draft legislation titled the Michigan Public Education Finance Project.

The first package of laws would expand and codify the state's authority to take over failing school districts.

The draft legislation proposes that education funding should follow students, not districts. It would allow students to take courses from any public institution in the state through online courses or by traveling between different schools.

Kingsley Superintendent Keith Smith said both proposed laws contain some provisions local districts support. But they also contained untested ideas, or ideas proven to be ineffective methods of education reform.

Traverse City Area Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Cousins said under the current draft of the Michigan Public Education Finance Project a student could, in theory, take all of his or her classes online.

"There is very little evidence all students learning 100 percent online is effective," Cousins said. "You will see an opportunity for that to expand with very little control."

Cousins used the right-to-work legislation to summarize his feelings about lawmakers' recent actions.

"How can we fundamentally change a huge law in the state of Michigan without having discourse around it?" Cousins said. "That should not be OK. We should be outraged."

School leaders discussed the proposed laws Monday with state Reps. Greg MacMaster, R-Kewadin, and Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, as well as state Sens. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, and Darwin Booher, R-Evart.

Walker said lawmakers are still vetting the Michigan Public Education Finance Project.

Legislators meanwhile made several changes to the EAA proposal, based on concerns of school leaders. Changes include removing a provision of the bill that would give the EAA authority to take over vacant buildings owned by local districts.

Walker, a proponent of right-to-work, acknowledged he would have preferred to see more discussion surrounding the legislation. But most interested parties decided long ago where they stand on that high-profile issue, he said.

"It certainly has been vetted individually by stakeholders and legislators involved, especially myself," Walker said. "I let people who were interested know where I stand on right-to-work."